Reformation England and the Performance of Wonder: Automata Technology and the Transfer of Power from Church to State
Abstract. When Henry VIII split England from the Church of Rome, a dramatic aspect of the broad campaign of reform and iconoclasm was the exposure of fraudulent religious imagery, revealing to the public that the revered, “miraculous” statues which seemed to come alive were in fact mere mechanical devices operated by an unseen priest. This paper views the exile of medieval mechanical, moving sculpture from religious spaces and their appearance at court soon after, re-tooled during the Renaissance as classically-derived hydraulic and pneumatic automata, as an as-yet unremarked upon aspect reflective of the transfer of power from Church to State in early modern England. Tudor and Stuart royals as well as a handful of sophisticated men in their orbits constructed gardens, grottoes, and theatres wherein awe-inspiring tableaux of the inanimate “brought to life” could be enjoyed by a privileged few. As the Anglican Church coalesced with the king, rather than the pope, at its head, so too did some of its mysteries and power transfer to the crown.
Keywords: religious history, history of technology, Reformation iconoclasm, English Renaissance, garden history, early-modern automata, Renaissance magic, magical philosophy